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Charlottesville Democrats renew push to ban firearms on college campuses after UVa shooting

Lawmakers in Richmond are close to passing a law that would ban firearms at all Virginia public colleges.

An identical pair of bills, one in the House of Delegates and one in the Senate, was introduced by a pair of Charlottesville Democrats, who say the proposed legislation holds a special significance for them some 15 months after a University of Virginia student was witnessed opening fire in a bus on Grounds, killing three and injuring two schoolmates.

Sen. Creigh Deeds and Del. Katrina Callsen are sponsoring the bills that have the support of university police chiefs across the commonwealth, who say that under existing laws their hands can be tied when someone brings a gun onto campus, as was the case with accused UVa gunman Christopher Darnell Jones Jr.

Their proposal has a high chance of making it to Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s desk this session, far better than similar bills introduced last year that faced a Republican majority in the House.

The only difference in language between the 2023 bills and the 2024 bills is a carve-out in the latest version that allows for firearms on the campus of an institution of higher education “as such uses are approved through the law-enforcement or public safety unit of such institution.” Another difference: Last year, the Senate version of the bill was introduced by Deeds but the House version was introduced by Charlottesville Democrat Sally Hudson. Hudson is not around for Round 2 after she challenged Deeds for his seat in last summer’s Democratic primary and lost both the race and her seat in the House.

If the Republican governor ends up signing Deeds and Callsen’s bill into law, having a gun at a public university would be a crime in most cases, allowing law enforcement to make an arrest, seize the weapon and open a criminal investigation.

While many universities have policies that prohibit guns, violating administrative policies only results in administrative sanctions, such as suspension or expulsion.

“Our campus chiefs wanted to be able to impose criminal penalties for possessing firearms in public institutions of higher education,” Dana Schrad, director of the Virginia Association of Chiefs of Police, told The Daily Progress. “They can’t do that under administrative policy but can under state law.”

Schrad noted that while it’s common for university policy to prohibit guns, many also prohibit hot plates in dorm rooms. Although possessing either is a policy violation, it is not against the law, limiting how police can respond.

“Even if school officials were to act quickly on an administrative policy infraction, there’s no reasonable way under current law to separate the firearm from its owner and maintain it for a pending investigation,” Schrad said.

If possessing a firearm is made illegal, law enforcement would be able to take the weapon while investigating the matter.

“That’s all we’re asking for here, is just give me another tool that will help me protect our students, faculty and staff. Give me access to investigative tools the enforcement of administrative policies may not allow me to access,” University of Virginia Police Chief Tim Longo told The Daily Progress.

While Longo said he may be able to take a gun from a student for safekeeping, he would only be able to keep it temporarily, even if the university levied sanctions against the student.

“There’s nothing to prevent that student as soon as they leave our Grounds from coming immediately to the police station and saying, ‘Give me my gun back,’” Longo said.

If the bill becomes law, that student would not be able to access the gun because it would be considered evidence in a criminal investigation.

Deeds called Longo the “mastermind” behind the bill. Both Long and UVa have been vocal proponents of such legislation since last year, when his nearly identical version passed the Senate but was killed in a Republican-controlled House of Delegates subcommittee.

“They’re not getting the same opportunity this year,” Deeds told The Daily Progress. “Any subcommittee it would go to is going to be controlled by Democrats, so I think I’ve got a really good chance of getting it passed this year. And if I do, I’ll get it to the governor. Simple as that.”

So far, all is going according to plan.

After the House bill narrowly passed that chamber earlier this month in a 51-48 vote, the identical Senate version passed the Senate on Monday in a 21-19 vote. Now, the Senate version will have to be passed by the House or vice versa, which could happen as soon as next week.

Youngkin’s office would not say how the governor is leaning. Asked for comment, spokeswoman Macaulay Porter offered the following: “The governor will review any legislation when it comes to his desk.”

“The vast majority of public universities in Virginia already prohibit you having guns on campus. There’s just not an enforcement mechanism because there’s not a law against it,” Callsen, a freshman Delegate representing the 54th District, told The Daily Progress. “By putting into law what is actually already in place, it makes it so that everyone’s safer, because now, if there’s a complaint, you can call a law enforcement officer to go and check if someone’s got a gun that they shouldn’t have.”

In 2021, Virginia made it illegal to carry a firearm in the Capitol or any other building owned by the commonwealth. But public colleges were excluded.

“We don’t allow guns where we work as legislators. We don’t think it’s safe. We prohibit them,” Callsen said. “We should be able to protect [students] in the same way that we’re willing to protect ourselves.”

Schrad agreed. University students expect university police to keep them safe, Schrad said.

“They have a unique situation where it’s not like a locality with people in private homes. They house students, mostly under 21 years old, on their campuses, in their dorms and in residential housing. It’s part of their responsibility to keep campus safe,” Schrad said.

She said she believes criminalizing guns on campus would help police achieve that goal and may deter offenders in a way that administrative policies would not. Additionally, it would put firearms investigations into the hands of trained police instead of university administrators.

Callsen said it is not lost on her that two Charlottesville lawmakers have introduced the proposed legislation after the 2022 shooting at UVa that left three students dead, two injured and the city under lockdown while police hunted for their suspect.

“We had a school shooting, our police chief has been a big proponent of it, and it was a good bill for me to carry and represent what our locality wants, especially given the trauma and background we’ve had recently with the school shooting,” Callsen said.

Longo would not say if the bill would have prevented the shooting that killed UVa students and Cavalier football players Devin Chandler, D’Sean Perry and Lavel Davis Jr. that night on Nov. 13, 2022.

“Certainly we would have had additional tools at our disposal that we did not have. But whether or not this would have prevented that tragedy, it would be wrong for me to speculate in that regard,” he said.

A parent of four, Longo said he knows what it’s like to entrust one’s children to a university. Parents expect a university will take every measure to keep students safe, just as legislators in Richmond passed a gun bill to protect themselves from harm, Longo said.

“At the end of the day, terrible things happen in places. We live in an evil world,” he said. “But that doesn’t mean we should not be thinking about and seeking every tool available to us under the law that allows us the opportunity to put into place strategies and mechanisms to keep people safe.”


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